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Opera Goes to the Movies: an interview with composer Patrick Morganelli

Hercules and Theseus in "Hercules in the Haunted World"
Hercules (Reg Park) and Theseus (George Ardisson) in Hercules in the Haunted World

A century ago, the budding film industry borrowed pretty heavily from opera—which makes a lot of sense, considering how the larger-than-life gestures of operatic acting suited the new medium of silent film so effectively.

And film has been repaying the favor in recent years: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, Howard Shore’s The Fly, André Previn’s Brief Encounter, even a new opera by Giorgio Battistelli inspired by the controversial Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, set to premiere in May at La Scala.

But the idea of fusing Mario Bava’s cult classic sword-and-sandal film Hercules in the Haunted World with opera opens the door to an altogether different kind of experience, both operatic and cinematic.

In other words, composer Patrick Morganelli’s film-opera—or opera-film, or opera-with-film, since it’s meant to be experienced in live performance—occupies a genre entirely its own. Composer Philip Glass pioneered this idea of a film-opera synthesis in La Belle et la Bête in 1994, which features vocalists and orchestra replacing the original soundtrack of the 1946 film. (It’s part of his trilogy based on the work of French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau that also includes Orphée and Les Enfants Terribles. Glass would also compose a new string quartet accompaniment for the 1931 Béla Lugosi classic Dracula, to be presented by LA Opera in October.)

For all the silly connotations of elitism that opera tends to conjure, it’s an inherently democratic art form that offers something for everybody: the emotional immediacy of the singing human voice; sound-worlds of nuance and power that only a live orchestra can create; theater; visual spectacle—potentially the whole spectrum of the performing arts. On top of that, film buffs get to consider the technical and artistic aspects that are of interest in Hercules vs. Vampires from a wholly new angle; for their part, Morganelli’s new work gives opera lovers a delightful fresh context for the genre.

About a month before rehearsals began for this unusual undertaking at LA Opera started, Patrick Morganelli spoke at length about the process and challenges of creating Hercules and how it fits into his career as a film and television composer.

Composer Patrick Morganelli
Composer Patrick Morganelli (photo: Anna Webber)

First, a bit about your professional background. How did you find your way into the field of film/TV music?
Patrick Morganelli: It actually happened because one night I got into a street fight alongside a director. I'm not the kind of guy who habitually looks for opportunities to get into street fights, but I found myself dragged into a bar fight back when I was living in Washington, D.C. in the late 1990s. The director and I became friends, and when he found out I was a musician he asked me to write music for an indie slasher film he was working on. It was done on a very shoestring budget and distributed by handing out DVDs. But this was D.C., not L.A., and I would run into other people who needed to have music for their movies. At that point I told myself I need to learn how this is done professionally, since I’d been winging it with no training at all.

That led me to move to Los Angeles to take the film scoring program at USC, and I learned the real way you’re supposed to do it.

So once you established a reputation as an L.A.-based composer working in film and television, did you ever imagine that you would one day write an opera—and that LA Opera would present it?
I can honestly say that never would have occurred to me. Even if you’d suggested such a scenario, I would have thought you had mistaken me for someone else. There is so much in this business that’s based purely on luck and being in the right place at the right time. Once LA Opera decided to do Hercules, the original idea was to present it at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. When LA Opera decided to do it at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I remember thinking that words could not adequately express the extent to which that blows my mind. It still seems like this is happening to somebody else.

So how did you come to write an opera to the cult Hercules film?
I’d heard about a small but adventurous company based in Portland called Opera Theater Oregon [OTO] that wanted to create music for a live performance featuring a Mario Bava film. That was immediately attractive to me because I’m a big fan of Bava’s films. I was picked to do the project in 2009 and then the opera premiered there in May 2010.

A ghoul from "Hercules in the Haunted World"
A ghoul rises from the grave to threaten Hercules in Hercules in the Haunted World

Forgive me for posing a dumb question, but how did you come up with the title? Are those really vampires at the climax?
I agree that the creatures don’t seem like vampires—they’re more like ghouls or zombies—but there is an earlier scene in which Lycos is commanded to kill Dianara and drink her blood. The original Italian title is actually Ercole al centro della terra (Hercules in the Center of the Earth), but some of the translations into German and French titled it Hercules against Vampires. I actually prefer the title used for the English release—Hercules in the Haunted World—since it sounds so operatic. But Hercules vs. Vampires was the title OTO came up with when we introduced the opera there in 2010, and it stuck.

Why was the world of Bava so attractive for you to work with?
Mario Bava had such an incredible visual sense. Before he became a director he was a cinematographer, so he understood a lot about dramatic lighting and how to properly frame a scene—and how to get extraordinary results with minuscule budgets. As a kid, before I knew anything about film history or technique, I remembered there were certain movies that had a look you couldn’t turn your eyes away from. Later on I found out that had a lot to do with this person called the director, and that a lot of movies that had this unusual quality were by the same guy, Mario Bava.

There’s another thing about Hercules in the Haunted World. If you look at operatic traditions—particularly back in the 17th and 18th centuries—there was a great deal of interest in mythology by composers like Monteverdi, Rameau, Handel, Gluck. So I thought, if I’m going to write an opera, this has a nice link to that tradition of myth. And the picture is visually spectacular because of Bava’s compositional technique. It’s done in anamorphic widescreen—the effect is like a Cinemascope picture—and that really pulls you in. Plus, the story itself is really very operatic. It has sex and violence, with hints of incest and the forbidden. Take the scene where Theseus says that he will murder his best friend over the love of a woman—if that isn’t operatic, I don’t know what is!

Theseus and Persephone in "Hercules in the Haunted Underworld"
Theseus (George Ardisson) and Persephone (Ida Galli) in Hercules and the Haunted World

Was it OTO’s idea to create a bonafide operatic score for Bava’s Hercules film?
I believe they had done something similar once or twice before, but not in so elaborate a way—maybe with a lot more improvisation, in a looser way. When I came on board, my approach was to write something that I understand to be an opera, and what I produced is a score that is almost 1,600 measures of music. I’ve actually been an opera fan my whole life. In fact the first piece of classical music I remember hearing as a child was the coronation scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

Did you get involved in editing down the original film for the version that would be turned into the opera?
I had no input into that at all. OTO cut out many of the scenes with Telemachus as well as some of the scenes that take place outdoors to get the length of the picture down to about 74 minutes. Also, those scenes have a silliness that seemed out of place. Some experts believe those comic outdoor scenes were not actually shot by Mario Bava, and they certainly have a different feel to them.

Well, even die-hard fans of the sword-and-sandal genre probably admit that, for today’s audiences in general, there is a fair amount of cheesiness (styrofoam boulders, rubber swords, low-grade special effects, etc.) Did that impact your compositional process at all?
Absolutely not. My feeling when I was composing was that I wanted to write this purely as an opera that would tell the story very seriously. That, combined with the ridiculousness of the imagery in the film, would create its own type of wit. Elmer Bernstein used to talk about this principle in film scoring, when he wrote music that was not regarded as comedic for comic films. His point was that by doing it in that way, the humor inherent in the story and image is set in relief.

Procrustes in "Hercules in the Haunted Underworld"
The monstrous, rubber-suited Procrustes

What was your favorite part of the movie to create music for? What do you think the most effective part of the score is?
There are a couple of scenes, like the guy in the rubber suit: instead of his being this murderous monster, Procrustes considers himself just a boring guy who is doing his job. I found that funnier than the fact that he’s wearing a rubber suit. Or the scenes in Hades, which are so visually amazing. I especially liked the two scenes between Hercules and the Oracle. I liked them a lot! This was the only time in the opera when I wasn’t tied to the mouth movements of the actors, since the Oracle is wearing a mask and you can’t actually see her face. The mask has no particular expression. So I was freed momentarily from the tyranny of the visual image. These were the only two times that gave me an opportunity to write a true operatic duet.

What was your process for writing the libretto?
I adapted the libretto from the original English dialogue of the movie. The only way you can sing as many words as you speak is if you have a lot of recitative. One of my fundamental goals was to make this about the glory of the human voice. So in places where an actor would be speaking lots of words, I would cut down the number while remaining true to the story. The other thing is, you have to make the words singable. For example, the high point in a phrase can’t be a word like “the” but should be a vowel sound—and it has to make dramatic sense, too. That was a difficult part of the process.

What parts of the film were particularly challenging to treat operatically?
Nothing really jumps out at me. Of course the big fight scene at the end is a challenging one simply because it’s quite long. In a typical movie you’ll have an action scene of just a few minutes, but this one is just under eight minutes long. In general, though, the project was infinitely harder than I thought it was going to be. At first I thought, “It’s only 74 minutes long, and I’ve done enough feature films.” But Hercules took me about six months.

And you did everything, soup to nuts, including the orchestration?
I did everything: composing the score, all the orchestration, and I even extracted the instrumental parts from the score. In fact, the version we are doing at LA Opera is substantially different from the original version in Portland, because LAO is allowing me to have a larger orchestra. In Portland I had 14 players, but in Los Angeles we are talking about 26 or 27 players, possibly a few more. I’m more comfortable with bumping up the technical demands in the score since I know these musicians and how good they are. I also wrote a completely new opening section and redid the big fight scene at the end.

Are there similarities between writing music for film/TV and composing an opera?
The common ground here is that both opera and film, at their best, represent storytelling. That is the most fundamental basis for any narrative art. I once heard David Mamet, after a talk, being asked, “How do you achieve the amazing atmosphere of your films?” His answer was: “Atmosphere is bullshit. The only thing that matters is story!” Filmmakers fundamentally understand that telling a great story—and telling it well—is the Holy Grail everybody wants to be headed towards.

Opera is a unique aspect of the art of storytelling, but fundamentally it’s very similar to film. In that regard, writing an opera and writing a film score are similar in that they are about using music to tell a story.

What’s next? Would you do another film/opera project? Is there a favorite movie that you would particularly like to write an operatic score for?
I'm not opposed to doing a film/opera. You do have to deal with complicated copyright issues—especially if you’re talking about a genre film, because it can be very difficult to figure out who owns the copyright to the material. And of course there are movies that people love but that wouldn’t work with an operatic treatment. In a way it’s a bit of a square peg in a round hole: the whole artistic medium of opera is about singing and telling a story by singing expressively, which means being able to take longer and draw out a phrase, to be flexible in the timing. Obviously the timing for a film score is strict and has to be synchronized.

This has been an extremely abundant year for me, with probably four or five feature films plus a TV show. I’ve written scores for a zombie comedy and a psychological thriller that are about to come out, for instance. And there are two more horror films after that. Plus I’m trying to finish a song cycle for mezzo and orchestra called Songs of Late Summer for this wonderful Israeli singer, Iris Malkin. And I was recently invited to be an artist-in-residence at Yosemite National Park: essentially to live in a cabin in Yosemite and write music. After that there’s a violin concerto I need to work on and—if we can complete negotiations—a fully-staged opera.

Thomas May is a regular contributor to LA Opera programs and blogs at memeteria.com.


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